Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Learning Curve

The last few weeks have been interesting since I put the book out in early November. As I learned at that time, being your own copy editor isn't a good idea.  (I’ve revised the manuscript five times since publication, finding small grammatical glitches each time I re-read chapters. I probably still don’t have them all, but I took care of roughly two dozen.)  Everything involved with putting out your own book is rough work!

What have I learned?  Let me put it this way: I couldn’t possibly envision Hemingway, Steinbeck or Kerouac on Twitter or Facebook hyping themselves.  Well, I could imagine Hemingway on Twitter, but no one would grasp what he was doing.  In the modern world, you’re supposed to hype yourself, shamelessly, endlessly, chase after popularity, page views, re-tweets, “likes” in double- or triple-digit numbers, “friends” galore, touting these digital triumphs, building your online self-mythology, regardless of depth or sincerity, for the whole world to gaze upon in envy.

I can embrace that to a certain extent – anyone putting a book out must endorse his own cult of personality – but not to the level where I’m going to use social media to sell this book.  I’m convinced that unless you’re well-versed in a given social-media platform, already using it for personal reasons and comfortable with the time commitment and lack of privacy, it’s pretty much a waste of time hyping a creative endeavor you’ve undertaken, be it a book, album, paintings, etc.  People aren’t going to flock to your social-media site from the pure power of your creative work, or your personality.  Like anything else, social-media identities are carefully constructed and nurtured, over time, generally on the premise of feeling a sense of self-actualization.  Some people are great at that, and I surely don’t hold it against them.

People create works of art for the same reason.  I recognize social media as a separate structure from what I’ve done with the book, where I’ve put a lot more time, space, effort and consideration into creating something that will last, as opposed to the constantly-running meter of social media. I want this thing to stand, next week, next year, decades from now. Whether 50 people read it or 50,000.  Sure, putting it out there and selling it is a popularity contest of sorts.  But not why I wrote it.  I wrote it to define a time and place in my life that not many people have done, that part of Pennsylvania, rural America by extension, in the 1970s.  That’s not fully accurate.  I already had about 80% of the book written and simply recognized this.  So, I compiled those pieces, revised a few, ordered them chronologically, and added about six more pieces that added to the whole.

It helps to go back to the first post I wrote here back in 2006.  It surprises me now how much of that post rings true and applies to what I just did in terms of putting out a book.  It’s simply what I do.  Back then, my father’s death two years earlier had blown my mind to the extent that I felt no urge or need to write.  In my mind, I created a half-assed tribute to him in terms of seeing the world with his stark clarity, i.e., seeing right through any sort of creative ambitions.  I hadn’t made it big by then … be practical … why go on?

But I’m not my father.  As much as I’ve adopted from him over the years, especially in terms of temperament and personality, this urge to write is something that existed way outside his frame of reference, Mom’s, too.  I remember the one time I got under his skin as a writer, when a story I had published in the college newspaper, a satirical piece on how I was raised in the Coal Region, was picked up by a local paper, re-published verbatim with a sidebar editorial positing the piece as a non-satirical insult to where I was raised.  It was far from the truth, but the sort of thing a bad editor would exploit.  Dad fielded a few nasty phone calls from outraged friends who didn’t “get it” – which was fine by me, the whole point of satire is for a lot of people not to get it.

Not fine by Dad.  He was pissed at first.  I made it clear to him: I’m your son. These jackasses calling you on the phone, threatening me with physical violence, aren’t well-versed enough to know they’re being played by a small-town newspaper editor.  You don’t need to like what I wrote or even take my side.  But you either need to hang up on these jackasses or tell them to go fuck themselves, because no friend of yours would ever do something like that.  I could understand Dad being angry that idiots were calling the house and assuming he was somehow responsible for this, but if I had a son, and you physically threatened him in my presence?

He got it, fairly fast.  I made it clear to him it was irrelevant to me whether he got it or not: this was happening, and I wasn’t backing down.  He should have known from the way his mother raised him and he raised me: I was not going to be intimidated.  From that point forward, he had no grasp of what I was doing as a writer, which was fine, so long as he respected my choice.  I’ve learned, don’t expect family to treat you like a rock star, or something special.  They know me so much better than that!  It’s reassuring to have people see you for exactly who you are, good and bad.

When you leave the working class, which is exactly what I was doing by going to college and writing, you head into a world that makes very little sense outside that context.  I learned how to work in offices, get used to the corporate mindset and understand the value so many people place on money as a source of self-respect.  In terms of the “writing” world, I’ve only existed on the fringes of that, which suits me fine now.  Seemed like failure at some points, but if you’re reading me now, or have ever read my stuff, and I’ve communicated something worthwhile and memorable to you, there is no failure, whether money has been part of that exchange or not.

In Dad’s mind, anything that existed above and beyond the working class was nirvana, paved with gold, the promised land, where he thought he should have gone with his life, where he wanted his kids to go, as that way of life would be “better” by one very clear, quantifiable measure: more money.  Boy, he didn’t have a clue!  The white-collar ways of life I’ve encountered would have blown his mind in terms of pressure, arrogance and the bizarre lack of self-worth that I’ve seen drive so many “successful” people.  He was over-joyed that I was making good money in non-working class settings.  And in his practical mind, if writing pays you next to nothing or nothing, you shouldn’t bother with it.

That was my only real rebellion against him.  That incident I noted above was the only time it ever got discussed.  I understood he didn’t place much value in that aspiration of mine.  I wasn’t hurt at all.  I could see in his mind that whatever I did, preferably for more money than he made, in a place that wasn’t clanking machinery, grease and dirt, was fine by him.  Whether it was getting paid for writing or punching an office clock.  Mom?  I don’t think she ever got that part of me either, but god damn, just like the picture on the back of the book (if you buy it!), she was teaching me how to write when I barely knew how to walk.

That piece I wrote back in 2006 was before Facebook and Twitter were ways of life.  Facebook was around a year or two; Twitter was just getting started.  Smart phones didn’t exist; people were painstakingly clicking miniature QWERTY-style keyboards on Blackberries.  All social media did was underline the tenets I put forth in that piece.  Self-promotion may have been more the domain of artists trying to hype their work back then, but social media made it acceptable for everyone, an addiction for many.

I do want to hype and promote my writing. But not like that, not in ways I’m not comfortable with, that I’ve always found questionable, full of empty promises and false values.  Just by poking around the Amazon message boards for publishing, I’ve seen so many people desperate for that level of financial success and acceptance as writers.  I think that even if they’re lucky enough to find these things, they won’t be as fulfilling as the illusion.  When I read all these missives and hard-wrought wisdom (generally from people who have sold 2,000 books at $0.99 per book about dog grooming) aimed at “first-time authors” … I guess they mean people in their 20s who’ve never published anything?  Sure, this is my first book, but far from my first brush with publishing or minor fame, or thousands of pages into a life of writing that, in this case, culminated in a book.  I worked through that mindfuck by 2004 and walked away from any vestige of it for two years.

Some people are going to get what you do.  Some are going to hate what you do.  Most aren’t going to know or care, one way or the other.  The goal seems to be tapping into the “get what you do” group and exploiting it for all it’s worth, whether that means dozens of sales or hundreds of thousands.  I can see now, after jiggering ads on Amazon for enticing keywords to pull potential readers in, trying to reach as many as possible … even when you do reach them by the tens of thousands, 350 will click on the book to actually look at it, maybe read the first few chapters online … maybe 10 will go ahead and buy it. Thus, you keep re-thinking the next set of ads and throwing the net out again.

Social media would be much the same concept, save there’s usually a meter on the site to let everyone know how well or poorly you’re doing.  And that’s where me and social media part.  No one has to know that but me.  There’s something so abrasive and empty about social media in terms of quantifying every morsel of communication, every relationship, however deeply personal or completely meaningless, that passes through it, visible to everyone, so you can judge for yourself by their kangaroo court of internet popularity.  Tell it to Van Gogh or The Velvet Underground, who would have had about 26 followers a piece on Twitter during the course of their greatness!

Beyond that, I can see that the only reason to put out a book through a publishing company is to have their marketing department work for you, hopefully have you tapped into a good agent, both of whom can arrange promotional tie-ins, appearances, reviews in major media outlets, etc.  And that’s nothing to scoff at.  While these things won’t make or break a book, they could go a long way in terms of influencing thousands of potential readers.

But even then, I can see, that’s not it.  I’ve had friends put out books with publishers, major and minor.  Good books, too, well worth reading.  And even with all the marketing and promotional muscle behind them … no big commercial breakthrough happens.  Successful books, especially today, are like lightning in a bottle.  So many different forces need to converge at roughly the same time to push the visibility level so much higher than before, as there so much more out there now.  You can launch an all-out assault on social media, arrange appearances on talk shows and reviews in major worldwide newspapers, even with a great book … and if the stars don’t align, it won’t happen. The way I’ve done it, if my book under-performs, all I have is a bruised ego. You do the same with a publishing company, you get the heave-ho, generally after being made to feel like a failure by people whose livelihoods depend on selling as many books as possible.

Is that solace? Hardly.  But it helps that I’ve been around long enough to see these varying levels of success and failure occur, even see a few people I know break through and make some kind of living as writers, however tenuous and insecure that job position tends to be.  In the end, you just do what you can, what you were put here to do.  That’s where I began, and it will be where I end.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Skipping Through the Graveyard in My Puke-Stained Suit

The day has arrived: Skipping Through the Graveyard in My Puke-Stained Suit: Growing Up in 1970s Rural Pennsylvania is now available on Amazon, in Kindle and Paperback versions.

The past two months have been insane. The key thing I’ve learned: proofreading your own book is like representing yourself in a court of law. You may think you’re smart. You may see yourself as empathetic. But when push comes to shove, there’s a ton of tiny details about yourself that you’re just not seeing.

I read this thing through so many times now that I’m simply exhausted. If there is a next time, I need to pay someone to have a go at this. It’s amazing how many minute details there were that took forever to detect, and I’m not sure I caught them all. Forget about comma usage … I’m all over the map with that stuff. But I have a propensity for dropping verbs and key words like “the” or “an” to make a sentence read as though a caveman wrote it. Mentally, these mistakes should be glaring, but time and time again, I missed details like this. If you do pick up a copy, feel free to let me know about minor glitches like this. Amazon allows me to edit the manuscript at any time, even after publication.

Overall, I’m excited about the finished product. In my mind, it’s a Frankenstein monster of bits and pieces I’ve written since about 1985 through last week. In the last two months, I added six new pieces that would have easily made posts on this site. One memory lead to another, and there were things I just had to include. Even now, there are bits and pieces floating around my head, but I just had to let this hen out. Whether it makes sense to anyone else, or has any appeal beyond people from that part of Pennsylvania recognizing their own lives in my words, time will tell.

You know how when you read a book, there’s an Acknowledgements portion in the end that recognizes what seems like a cast of dozens of people surrounding the author as he raises his new literary work and unfurls it like a flag?

For the life of me … I did this shit on my own! Sitting here where I am now, in my leather chair in my basement studio in Astoria, cranking this shit out, much as I cranked it out in my bedroom back home in spiral notebooks back in the 70s. The only assistance I had was Angie Jordan’s husband, Scott Sullivan, helping out with the cover design, taking a photo of the actual cemetery in question and applying a more professional touch to the image. Are these writers really living like this, surrounded by a swarm of people supporting them and picking them up every step of the way? That wasn’t my experience at all. I always feel like a dick when I read those Acknowledgement sections. More precisely, the word “Bull … Shit” appears in my mind. Don’t let anyone fool you. An undertaking like this, as Glenn Frey once sang, you’re all alone in the center ring.

So, please, if you’ve been reading along here for any amount of time, follow the link, buy a copy in your chosen format, you won’t be let down. If you like it, spread the word, get on any given social media outlet you may imbibe in, pass along a recommendation. I suspect that sort of informal “word of mouth” publicity is how things work now, much more than the old machinery clanking away at the publishing house. It’s been an interesting learning experience seeing just how fast and self-reliant a method of publishing this is. Of course, every crank with a book idea these days is doing the same thing. I like to think I’m a higher class of crank. You be the judge.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Tom Petty's Inferno

Scene: A tastefully understated bathroom in a Malibu beach house. The Pacific Ocean is visible through a bay window over a vintage cast-iron tub. On the toilet sits an elderly bearded man: Tom Petty. He’s smoking a cigarette and reading a book about The Shroud of Turin. Suddenly, a bolt of pain shoots up his left arm, paralyzing that side of his body. Petty stands, drops the book in the toilet, kneels to the marble floor and loses consciousness.

He wakes up on a bathroom floor, but not the one he passed out on. This is a non-descript, clean bathroom of the sort found in doctor’s offices. Outside the door, he can hear voices, feet shuffling, a lot of activity. He gets up, pulls his pants back on, brushes himself off and looks in the mirror: the same person. The book is gone, but all else remains the same.  Huh, Petty thinks, that was a cigarette I was smoking, there’s no logic behind this. Having been along for the ride on many similar drug experiences, he knows to roll with whatever’s happening.

He opens the door onto a bustling backstage area of what he recognizes as a TV studio: cables, the backs of klieg lights, stage curtains, fold-out director’s chairs, assistants hustling to and fro. Petty thinks this vision will require him to perform live since that’s the only reason he’d be at a TV studio.

Monty Hall: Wrong, Tom. You’re not here to perform.

The voice comes from behind him, and it sounds vaguely familiar, as most game-show host voices do. He turns to see Monty Hall approaching him in a green plaid leisure suit, as he was in the early 1970s, smiling broadly.  The only difference, Petty notices, is that he has two small horns sticking out of his temples, and the slight smell of sulfur accompanies his presence.

Tom: Monty Hall! Didn’t you just die a few days ago?

Monty Hall: Monty surely did. He’s with us now.

Tom: What? No. You’re Monty Hall.

Satan: No, Tom, I’m not Monty Hall. I’m Satan. I’m using Monty Hall’s visage to create your vision of hell.

Tom: Wait a minute. You’re telling me I’m dead? Man, I’m not even 70!

Satan: No one saw it coming, Tom, not even me! Keith Richards walks the earth, yet here you are!

Tom: What did I die of?

Satan: Massive heart attack while reading a Jesus book on the can. Just like your idol.

Tom: And now I’m in hell?

Satan: Literally, no. We’re at the gates of hell, figuratively speaking. We’re here to play a little game.

Satan: Bingo!

Tom: Are you sure my name is on your list?

Satan: It sure is! There’s no waiting in line for Tom Petty!

Tom: Look. I could be an asshole. Most rock stars are. You don’t get that far for that long without doing some damage.

Satan: Oh, you did. You were no picnic. The usual rock-star stuff. Drugs. Debauchery. Neglect. Pride. The shit that went on with Stan Lynch was pretty lousy.

Tom: Sure, Satan, but he was being a prick, too.

Satan: Undoubtedly so. But you should understand one of our circles down here features a Jimmy Iovine clone in a recording studio control room making drummers hit the same snare roll, over and over, for eternity, while constantly barking “again, again” and “I have Jim Keltner’s number on my rolodex, why don’t you take a break.” For eternity. That place is for aspiring drummers who come here, thinking they’re going to realize their lifelong dreams of being rock stars, only to find themselves locked in a recording studio with an irritating twat in a baseball hat calling them “asshole” for playing the same beat, over and over, and never getting it right.

Tom: That does sound like what happened.

Satan: You should be honored. You and Iovine served as inspiration for one of my better burns.

Tom: But so many people loved my music.

Satan: Me, too. Obviously, the long string of early hits, but when you later got into stuff like “Echo” and “Room at the Top” … I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve sat here in my lair, ruminating on the nature of mankind, and those two songs perfectly define how I feel. You had a real knack for writing lyrics that were deceptively simple, but suggested more profound meaning.

Tom: Thanks, I guess. But come on, now, there’s more going on here than me giving Stan Lynch the hard time he deserved.

Satan: Oh, there is. I’d call it vanity, more than anything. For centuries, this had been the domain of kings, rich men and heads of state. But in the past 50 years, musicians and actors tend to suffer the same consequence. Your talent endears you to millions of people who, on one hand love and respect you for your warmth and immediacy. But on the other, encourage you to see yourself as super human, special beyond comprehension. Thus, the one-night stands on the road. The brusque behavior with record-company and hotel staffs, assistants and band members. The purposeful distance with loved ones who knew you before you were famous.

Tom: That’s enough for hell?

Satan: It’s the gateway to hell. Remember all the times you were doing things that you recognized as wrong, stupid and abusive, there was that voice in your head, reminding you that this was wrong?

Tom: Sure, my conscience.
Satan: No. That was me. It's always me. That's one of the jobs God gave me, along with running hell. To give people fair warning of bad, potentially damnable behavior. I am your better angel. God gave you free will, so I have no control over your life. It's human nature to be sinful. That part of my job is easy; I literally do nothing. The hard part of my job is trying to subtly convince people that they should change their ways, and thus never lay eyes on me. I do this with the understanding that most people never listen to me.

Tom: OK. So I screwed around, like any other musician on the road. I got cross with people. I got moody and abusive sometimes. I didn't kill anyone. Start any wars. If anything, my music helped people keep their heads on straight and avoid going off the rails like this.

Satan: All good points. But the key to your vanity is that it will strip you of the self-awareness required to overcome it. That’s what I’m not getting about rock stars. You pride yourselves on connecting to the common man, of relating to every-day humanity and emotions. Yet, your personal lives are virtually no different from those of influential men from the past who lived like angry gods, as opposed to decent human beings. According to your songs, you’re only human. But the adulation heaped on you led you to believe otherwise. To the point where you accepted this illusion of superiority as universal truth. I think that’s the crux of why you’re here.

Tom: Other rock stars are down here?

Satan: (laughing) Sure! Far more than are in heaven! Pretty soon, we’ll have a Traveling Wilburys reunion! Jeff Lynne will be the last. We’ll get him more for the drum sound he created in the 80s than anything else.

Tom: So why am I here? Not hell. This TV studio.

Satan: Well, as you can see, I’m Monty Hall, and I’ll be hosting hell’s version of Let’s Make a Deal, featuring Tom Petty as the first contestant.

Tom: The band and I used to get high in the morning and watch game shows all the time. If I recall, Let’s Make a Deal made the contestants dress up like it was Halloween.

Satan: Correct.

Tom: So what will I be dressed as?

Satan: The Crypt Keeper. You really don’t have to change a thing.

Tom: Ha-Ha. Do you know how many times I’ve heard that one?

Satan: Probably about as many times as guys told you they once dated a girl in high school who looked just like you.

Tom: Yeah, a certain kind of guy always had that one girl.

Satan: I don’t think they were being complimentary.

Tom: No. They meant the girl was plain, sort of homely, and had droopy eyes from getting stoned. How do I know this? Because I dated a girl who looked like me in high school!

Satan: Well, if it’s any solace, you did look OK up through the mid-80s.

Tom: My greatest revenge in life was knowing I was an un-layable dude who, thanks to his musical talent, had sex with dozens of beautiful women who otherwise wouldn’t have looked at him twice.

Satan: Well played, sir, well played. A fitting epitaph. That’s why guitars were invented. But that was then, this is now, let’s go!

Satan claps his hands, and he and Tom Petty immediately materialize in the cheering studio audience, Tom standing among a group of people dressed as sailors, witches, soldiers, cheerleaders. He’s standing next to Satan who is holding a thin microphone and laughing heartily.

Satan: So, Tom Petty, where are you from?

Tom: Originally from Gainesville, Florida, but I lived in Los Angeles.

Satan: Are you ready to make a deal?

Tom: Do I have a choice?

Satan laughs his bellowing, game-show host laugh again. A beautiful woman in a gown rolls out a deluxe Kenmore refrigerator to center stage. The audience gasps in amazement.

Satan: Jay, tell us about this wonderful prize.

Jay (a disembodied television announcer voice, speaking very fast): Monty, we have a Kenmore 50023 25 cubic foot, Side-by-Side, Stainless Steel Refrigerator. Fit more fresh food and delicious leftovers in this spacious Kenmore 50023 Stainless Steel Side-by-Side Fridge. Top-to-bottom storage space gives you plenty of room to stash away snacks, produce, leftovers, pre-made meals and household staples with room to spare. Gallon door bins means you won’t have to find a place to cram the milk, juice or wine while the tight-sealing doors help keep foods fresher, longer. Adjustable shelving and door bins let you organize the fridge just the way you like so everything, even the leftover lasagna, has a place in the fridge. Suggested retail price, $1,213.96.

The audience continues to sigh in amazement.

Satan: Tom, that’s a lot of space to store alcoholic beverages and scoobie snacks for the munchies.

Tom: That’s right, Monty. And my collection of human heads that I keep in mason jars, too.

Satan doubles over in laughter, as does an audience member dressed like the “devil” version of Satan. Tom stares in amazement as he realizes the audience member is Jeffrey Dahmer.

Satan: Tom, that dark sense of humor is going to serve you well here. But seriously, you know how the deal works.  You can have this wonderful Kenmore refrigerator, free and clear, or … we have other options waiting for you … behind doors 2 and 3.

The beautiful woman onstage strolls to her left. Tom looks more closely and realizes the woman is Marilyn Monroe. She raises her left arm, while waving her right arm up and down to showcase the doors that have appeared on each side of her.

Tom: Well, you know, Monty, the refrigerator is tempting. But since I’m in hell and have nothing to lose, why not chose one of the doors instead.

Satan: Always the gambler, always the risk taker, living by his wits, Tom Petty, which will it be Door 2, or Door 3?

Tom takes a moment to ponder his choice.  He looks at the audience and realizes Adolf Hitler is dressed as Charlie Chaplin, and John F. Kennedy as a rodeo clown.

Tom: Is that Adolf Hitler dressed as Charlie Chaplin?

Satan: Tom, this is hell, not Burbank, California.  Of course, that’s Adolf Hitler. Adolf, are you enjoying yourself?

Adolf: Ja, sehr gut, sehr gut. Much better than dragging dead Jews into mass graves you had me doing yesterday, danke, Herr Satan, danke.

Satan: Good, good. Tom, I should tell you, things work differently when you make a deal in hell. We’re going to show you what’s behind both doors, the full implications of each choice, and let you decide rather than have you feel terrible for making a bad choice.

Tom: That’s awful nice of you.

Satan: Well, let’s see what’s behind the doors before you make that assumption. Marilyn, if you will, please show us what’s behind Door #2.

Marilyn waves her left arm with a flourish as she walks in front of the dissolving face of Door #2. The sound of the French National Anthem plays … but it’s not. It’s the introduction to The Beatles’ song, “All You Need Is Love.” The scene that materializes from behind the door is the studio session that was filmed for worldwide broadcast on June 25, 1967. Petty remembers it like it was yesterday, as any time The Beatles or Stones were to appear on TV, he was on it. Something strange though.  There appeared to be a fifth member of The Beatles playing dual lead guitar, seated next to George Harrison. A skinny, young guy, blonde, shoulder-length hair … son of a bitch, Petty thinks, that’s me!

Satan: Jay, tell us more about Door #2.

Jay: Certainly, Monty. This prize is a membership in The Beatles for eternity. History will be revised just for you, Tom Petty, so that it will show when The Beatles fired Pete Best for Ringo Starr in 1962, they also hired a young American guitarist they had met playing night clubs in Hamburg, a certain Tom Petty from Gainesville, Florida who played in Gene Vincent’s touring band. Unlike George Harrison, John Lennon and Paul McCartney will include you in their songwriting process so that you can share in the making of such hits as “She Loves You,” “Ticket to Ride” and “A Day in the Life.” They will consider you an equal creative partner and, in fact, you will serve as an important bridge between Paul and John when they start drifting apart as friends and songwriters in 1966. Suggested retail price is beyond comprehension for a music fan like you, Tom Petty.

Tom: Now, wait a minute. This is hell. There must be some catch, like in the movie Bedazzled. Everything I choose, no matter how rewarding and attractive, will be revealed as having a dark side that I didn’t anticipate.

Satan: Thank you, Tom, for noting one of my favorite movies that depicts me correctly. But, no, there is no catch or hidden agenda. You will become part of The Beatles and spend the rest of your after-life living that dream. Of course, the downside will be there too: pissing off Ringo so badly during the recording of The White Album that he quits. Lennon’s heroin abuse. McCartney’s ego. The fist fight between John and George during the making of Let It Be when John finally snaps over one of George’s throwaway insults about Yoko. As with any band, as you well know, shit happens. But you will also be a full participant in the creation of songs that will be remembered centuries from now. How about it, Tom, does Door #2 strike your fancy?

Tom: Satan, you’re like a lawyer, asking questions you already know the answers to.

Satan: (laughing) Well, funny you should say that Tom, everyone who has ever received a law degree from the start of time is hellbound, no matter what he does in his lifetime. Perhaps the only more certain bet on going to hell than being a celebrity! But no matter, before you decide, let’s see what’s behind Door #3. Marilyn?

(Marilyn Monroe sweeps back in from stage right, winking and curtseying before strolling in front of Door #3 as the door dissolves to show a wood-paneled family room circa 1965 in a middle-class American home. A thin, gaunt, bespectacled man in his 30s with a crew-cut and face similar to Tom Petty’s, but harder, stands glowering over a gawky teenage boy sprawled on the carpet watching an episode of the TV series, F Troop. I thought I told you to mow the lawn, the man snaps at the boy. Yeah, I will in half an hour, the boy replies listlessly, F Troop is on, Dad. The man grabs the boy by the legs, yanks him to his feet, and pulls back his right hand, where the scene freezes.)

Satan: Jay, tell us more about Door #3.

Jay: Certainly, Monty. Tom, should you choose, Door #3, your after-life will be to be spend a very long time in hell with your father, locked into a five-year period between 1963 and 1967. As you recall, Tom, this was when he was at his most angry and abusive, lashing out at you and your brother for no reason, irrational outburst of rage. You may also recall, your driving emotion at the time wasn’t reciprocating anger and fear, but the desire to find out why your father was this way. You will have a lifetime in hell to try to find out why your father was mentally and  physically abusing your family, then make him stop.

Satan: Well, Tom, what say you?

Tom: (still shaken from being transported directly to one of his more harrowing childhood memories) What do you mean, what say I? You’re telling me to choose between heaven and hell.

Satan: Tom, do you remember how Let’s Make A Deal worked? Particularly when we had a contestant win, let’s say, a set of Samsonite luggage?

Tom: Sure. That was a trick prize. The contestant would clap along gamely, thinking, oh well, I won some luggage. And then you’d say something like, “Well, now wait a minute, you’re going to need some place to take that luggage” and the door behind the luggage would slide open to reveal an all-expense-paid trip to Brussels, Belgium.

Satan: That’s right, good memory. Jay, tell us where Tom can take his emotional baggage behind Door #3.

Jay: Certainly, Monty. Tom, if you choose Door #3, it will take you a very long time to convince your Dad he’s wrong, as you knew that stubborn Southern rebel streak well and possessed some of it yourself. There is no sense of time as you understand it in hell, but in human terms, it may take you decades of repeated abuse before you can break through and convince him that he’s wrong. But when you do, you will magically be transported to heaven, where you will spend the rest of your days hanging out, smoking pot, making love to blonde bombshells, playing your guitar and watching as many episodes of F Troop as you please.

Tom: So, you’re saying I get to be myself again.

Satan: That’s right, Tom. You get the rock-star lifestyle all over again, as does everyone in heaven.

Tom: Monty, one key question.

Satan: Shoot, Tom, shoot.

Tom: Where is my mother? I know Dad is in hell.  That makes perfect sense. But where’ my Mom?

The audience sighs knowingly, nodding their heads. General Custer, dressed as an astronaut, wipes a tear away from his cheek.

Satan: You can’t get anything past this perceptive young man! Yes, Tom, what you’re thinking is true. Your Mom, bless her heart, is in heaven. She was a no brainer for taking all that shit your father dished out, never once losing her composure and sacrificing herself so that her kids could be raised with some semblances of love and dignity.

Tom: So, you’re pretty much saying I can live out a lifelong dream for an eternity in hell. Or take decades, maybe even centuries, of abuse from my old man so I can see my Mom again.

Satan: That’s right. This is how we roll in hell. Door #2 with The Beatles will be indecipherable from how many people spend an eternity in heaven.

Tom: Monty, did you ever see the movie, Cool Hand Luke?

Satan: (laughing) Oh, I can see where this is going. The scene where they roll Luke’s mama up to the prison in the back of the jalopy for one last visit, with the understanding that she’s going to die while he’s in jail?

Tom: Exactly. I never mentioned this in interviews, but that moment had a far deeper impact on me than even seeing Elvis in person or The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. All the more so thanks to Dad beating the shit out of me and my brother all those years. You see, instead of being in prison, I was a rock star, which was no prison at all. But it kept me on the road and wrapped up in my own affairs from the moment I left Gainesville for Los Angeles. When I saw Mom on her death bed days before she died, figuring I was going to be on the road or in the studio when her time came, I made a vow that I would do whatever it takes to see her again, this world or the next.

Satan: This is the next world, Tom, and that’s a long road ahead of you, should you choose it. Do you seek the redemption you never found in life?

Tom: I have no choice, Monty, I made a promise. I choose Door #3.

Instantaneously, Tom disappears from the studio audience and is transferred to his childhood self in the scene from Door #3. The action unfreezes, and his father’s open hand slaps Tom directly on the face, dropping him to the living-room carpet. His father expects him to start crying. Instead, Tom rolls over and smirks, the very same smirk displayed on his first album cover. He winks at the studio audience, who starts to fade from his view, with Satan leading a standing ovation. The last person in the studio audience Tom sees is George Harrison, smiling broadly and waving to Tom, dressed as The Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017


Just to let readers know, the past few weeks I've been assembling and editing various posts, older articles from publications, unpublished bits and pieces, etc. to form what should become a book about growing up in rural Pennsylvania circa 1972-84.  I'm not sure yet how I'll present this, whether going through Amazon and self publishing or trying to weed out some type of publishing deal.  But I like what I'm seeing thus far.  Not doing it for the money, as with all things you read here, but simply because I'm good at doing it and have always enjoyed the process.  Any recommendations or interested parties out there, feel free to check in with me via Comments.  I should be getting back on a more regular writing schedule in September.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Christ Comes to Coaltown

Author’s Note: This story first appeared in Leisuresuit.net on February 21, 2000.  I always liked it, and it’s worthy of reprint now.  From what I gather, Whatsyourname  is still around, taking the concept of Jesus into new territory as the Dude must certainly be somewhere in his 50’s. 

"And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him. And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad? And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?"

-- Luke, 24:13-18

Emmaus is a good ways south of the Coal Region in Northeast Pennsylvania. Down around Bethlehem. And Nazareth, made famous by The Band when Levon and Robbie pulled into for salvation via a new guitar at the Martin factory. All they would have seen heading South on Route 81 was woods, farms, Golden Arches and small towns in the distance.

Had they left the interstate, they'd have been amazed how an approaching town, through tangles of tree branches and telephone wires, resembled some small Eastern European village, with the bulbous, golden domes of Russian Orthodox churches and angled steeples rising over factories and houses. Each town would look the same, but somehow different, as even the blank slate of a shantytown like Shaft or William Penn would mean civilization after a few hard miles of great black slag heaps (soon to be gone thanks to coal regeneration plants). The Molly Maguires traveled these back roads in the late 1800's, before an undercover detective and the hangman crushed their murderous coal miners' rebellion.

The long arms of Philly and New York don't reach this far. The suburban sprawl and six-figure restored barns of the southern part of the state haven't seeped north. I grew up thinking Scranton and Wilkes Barre were big cities to the north but see them now for the even-larger coal towns they are. The one or two ski resorts are miniscule compared to the tourist chalets in the Poconos. West of the Poconos and east of Eden.

"HAZLETON, PA. He appeared out of the blue back in October, clad only in a dirty white robe as he walked barefoot along the two-lane highway into this struggling former coal town. Folks pointed at first as the man with the shoulder-length hair and scruffy beard preached to whoever would listen. Before long, though, many in this largely Roman Catholic community were embracing him as a holy man."

-- "Some See Hope in Mysterious Preacher," Joann Loviglio, Associated Press, January 29, 2000

I can see him now in the dim yellow light of a firehouse hall. The bingo cage and microphone sitting on a card table off to the side of the plywood stage. The firetruck smell of rubber and metal seeping from the garage next door. Creaks and scrapes of folding metal chairs opening on a cement floor. The taps at the bar turned off for this holy night, and the regulars in their baseball hats and blaze-orange hunting vests grumbling. The halo of a Pepsi clock glowing over his head.

Or maybe he's in a field. People milling around him, where they normally gather for turkey shoots and block parties, kids hunting for Easter eggs, and a cover band with umlauts in its name playing Skynyrd and Springsteen in the summer. The faces, hard and round, shadows of the Ukraine and Ireland, with bifocals and wrinkles, rosary beads and little black Bibles clutched in hand, gazing back at this man in nothing but a white robe and sandals in the dead of winter. Turn a six-pack of Yuengling into the blood of Christ. A box of Mrs. T's Pierogies into His body.

According to the A.P., when anyone asks his name, he replies "What's your name?" He says it's part of a Hebrew tradition not to reveal your name to someone until you're their friend. So the locals now call him: "What's YourName". His real name, according to a police affidavit, is Carl J. Joseph, 39. I've seen his face in a picture. Like Christ as traditional surfer dude. Ted Neeley and Willem Dafoe. He's got the look, even a year shy of forty. But where was Christ all those years, after teenage sparring in the temple with the rabbis and before a three-year lunge at earthly authority so burning and desperate even his own followers called for his head? "What's your name" is a Hebrew tradition? It's also a line from a David Bowie song that Pontius Pilate would have liked.

The newspaper says he's been traveling for 9 years, through 47 states and 13 countries. But he's never stayed in one place for so long before. He spoke to 2,000 people once in Hazleton, and it's not uncommon to see dozens of people "standing in a field at 2 a.m. listening to him preach. "He turns over all money and gifts he receives to local parishes, except for sandals he received recently because he did not own a pair of shoes.

"He said he will remain in the area as long as there is a need for his words."

-- from the AP article

I left when there was no longer a need for my words. Or at least I was filled with enough anger, boredom and resentment that whatever I had to say wasn't going to do anyone any good, and I had to go away. Back then I blamed it on the place, that I had "outgrown" it in some sense and had to move on. And maybe that was true simply in the sense of leaving home, wherever it may have been. But I can look back now and see that I had to outgrow whoever I was much more than the Coal Region itself. That sense of abandonment haunts and comforts me to this day. 1978, a good decade before I left. My brothers and I would sit on the steps of a mausoleum in the graveyard by the church. Bagging it because our relentlessly Irish Catholic grandmother had a debilitating stroke, preventing her from attending Mass. Our sister was still going through the motions, although that wouldn't last. Our father was doing much the same, only with the benefit of a car. And our mother was a filthy Protestant, so she was already hellbound and didn't count.

We got dressed up every Sunday morning, left at quarter to nine, and hung around talking about rock stars and school. Occasional parishioners passing by would glare at us. They didn't know teenagers like being glared at. We lived. The parish priest at that time was later nailed for possessing child pornography, and he was in the pictures, too. The church folded a few years back. My friend George bought it for a song. He didn't want any freaks moving in next door.

Here's a picture I clipped from a local newspaper and held for years before it turned too yellow: a group of Catholic school children re-enacting Christ's agonizing walk up Calvary Hill. Roman centurions in wire-frame glasses and shag haircuts, bearing plastic Star Wars lasers and trashcan lids. The Virgin Mary in a headband and two-tone saddle shoes. Christ, a pasty-faced 12-year-old, bearing his cardboard cross, wearing a white sheet and a pair of Nike running shoes. They do roughly the same show in Gordon every Easter, only with adults. What I always wondered: If this reenactment were to be authentic, shouldn't most of the crowd be bawling out taunts like "King of the Jews" and "crucify him" and throwing stones at "Christ," even if they're only styrofoam chunks painted to look like stones?

"SHENANDOAH -- Gary A. Moses, 42, said when driving to Mahanoy City on Friday, he saw What's Your Name walking the road. 'It was bitter,' he said. 'It takes a lot to walk in these conditions with sandals and a robe,' he said. He stopped to offer him a ride but the nomad refused. 'His reasoning for not taking a ride is he said that's how he meets people.'

-- "300 Hear Nomad's Message," by Stephen J. Pytak, Pottsville Republican and Evening Herald, February 2, 2000.

The only Buddha I meet on the road back there is a guy named Buddy. Rumor has it he spent an afternoon hanging out at the bottom of a swimming pool as a boy, and is lucky to be alive, but is slightly brain damaged as a result. He thumbs it everywhere. It seems to be his purpose in his life. You'd have to be nuts to pick him up. He has a shock of red hair, and his rocking body motions let you know something's slightly off. He's often wearing a bright red Philadelphia Phillies warm-up jacket. No one knows where Buddy goes. He just goes. And he never gets there. As Woody Guthrie must have known every Dust Bowl backroad, Buddy surely knows even the abandoned, dilapidated mining roads in the Coal Region. Buddy's going to be there long after What's Your Name is gone. I suspect one day he'll be thumbing my hearse as it passes on the road to the cemetery. Then again, much like Christ, Buddy has more reason to fear the motives of those nearest him than the capricious whims of omnipotent rulers:

"TAMAQUA -- The 27-year-old Tamaqua man who allegedly robbed and repeatedly stabbed a hitchhiker with a screwdriver Wednesday morning remains today in Luzerne County Correctional Facility in lieu of $75,000 bail.

Tedd Richard Fredericks, of West Broad Street, was arraigned before District Justice Joseph D. Zola, of Hazleton, on charges of aggravated assault, three counts of robbery, simple assault and theft by unlawful taking or disposition. The victim, Harold 'Buddy' Klinger, also of Tamaqua, was treated at Hazleton General Hospital for numerous lacerations and a broken right hand. Klinger is originally from the Ashland area, according to Tamaqua Police Chief George B. Woodward, who said the man is known for hitchhiking and panhandling in the Tamaqua area.

According to the affidavit of probable cause filed by Corporal Brian S. Tobin, a state trooper at Hazleton, the attack was initiated when Fredericks offered Klinger a ride for $6 when he saw him standing along Route 309 near Tamaqua. Tobin said Klinger knows Fredericks because they reside in the same apartment building, so he agreed to the ride. They then picked up Fredericks' mother in Hometown and took her to work at J.E. Morgan Knitting Mills, he said. After dropping her off, the two drove back to Tamaqua for gas, then headed back to Hazleton, he said.

'They drove on Interstate 81 and got off at the Hazleton exit,' said Tobin, who spoke with the stabbing victim. 'Klinger said they made a couple of turns and didn't know where they were. Then Fredericks stopped the car to go to the bathroom.' Fredericks then exited the vehicle and opened the trunk. He called Klinger to the back of the car and asked him if he did drugs. When Klinger said no, Fredericks began stabbing him around the head with a screwdriver, Tobin said. According to Tobin, Klinger didn't see the weapon at first, but when he started to get stabbed by Fredericks, he attempted to flee, but the attacker jumped on him and continued stabbing.

'Fredericks then took approximately $380 from Klinger and drove off, leaving him behind,' Tobin said."

-- "Tamaqua Man Charged in Stabbing," Chris Dean, Pottsville Republican and Evening Herald, 2/3/00

There are strange things about the Coal Region reporters will never pick up. Having been born and raised there for 20 years, I'm not even sure I have. Forget about the accent, a strange, guttural mix of Irish and Slavic. I can't imitate it, although I sometimes drop hints of it when back there for a few days. Mahanoy City is famous for always being on fire. And for once having their Christmas tree right in the middle of the main street, and it would invariably get wiped out every few years by a drunk driver. Old coalcrackers pronounce it "Mock-annoy." Shenandoah is the heart of the Coal Region, if not the head. "462 da fuck" is a popular local saying, the town's area code, stated with profane emphasis. What amazes me about What's His Name--how he didn't get locked up in the hoosegow for vagrancy and then given a ride to the edge of town the next day. This unnerves me. Makes me feel like King Herod, and the pharaohs before him. Are people in the Coal Region easily led astray? No. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find people more stubborn. I know the hardcore coalcrackers, the factory workers who never make the papers unless it's holding a trophy or the antlers of a dead buck, are having a good laugh over What’s Your Name. But I would say that as in any small town, curiosity runs wild in a situation like this, and it doesn't hurt that What's Your Name is pushing all the right spiritual buttons. I'd imagine a majority of the audience at his shows are Christians; the rest just want a piece of the action. And they see a man who is not Christ, but gives good scripture anyway.

I've known Paul Rieder for a few years now, a gentleman farmer in the wilds of southeast New York state who's also a fine musician. One of his songs is called, "Jesus Died at 33- 1/3." He and his wife, Heidi, have traveled extensively, and it's his habit to keep journals of these trips. It was Paul who brought my attention to What's Your Name's saga with the AP article that has touched off a media frenzy, with Time, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer and ABC News hot on the trail. He sent me the AP article, along with his journal entry from a trip to Mexico:


Palenque and Misol-Ha, Chiapas, Mexico

It takes a bit to find out how to get to the waterfall at Misol-Ha without spending a lot of money. Everybody seems to want us on some kind of $50 package tour with all the tightlipped sunburned Germans. Finally, we decode the local schedule and get on a chicken-class bus--telling the driver "Crucero Misol-Ha" a few times so he'll remember to stop there—and slowly wait for the bus to Tila to fill. It's an ancient school bus painted bright blue (inside and out).

About half an hour in the bus stops in the middle of the jungle--not a building or path in sight--and on gets a white hippie guy dressed only in a thin blanket--the polyester kind found in bad motels. He sits down in the aisle up front. I know immediately that he's getting off with us.

So of course it's just the three of us there at Crucero Misol-Ha for the two miles or so to the water. He starts up a friendly conversation--he's American. Did we know there was a Rainbow Gathering at Misol-Ha this week? No, we did not. Turns out he's been on the Rainbow trail for six years now--no vocation, no money, and unless he's hidden some back there in the jungle, no clothing except a blanket. He expounds his philosophical position--he's essentially a holy fool, constantly moving around (Central America these past six months), going to these gatherings, sleeping in the wilderness and eating whatever he finds. (Maybe the Mexicans feed him 'cause he looks like Jesus.) He asks us what we do and Heidi says we're farmers--he thinks she said "performers," then laughs when we correct him, singing to himself, "Am I a farmer, am I a star?" We chat some about farming. He asks us our names.

"Paul and Heidi. And yours?"


"Um ... Paul and Heidi. And you are ..."


Aha. I laugh and he laughs too. It seems that What'syourname is his nomde-Rainbow -- sort of a litmus test for a person's tolerance and humor.

We arrive at the falls: it's a much grander, jungly version of Hamilton Pool in Texas, a big collapsed grotto with veils of water pouring into a deep cool lake. It's around 95 now and very humid. Looks like the bulk of the hippies have taken off. What'syourname has a baggie with his passport and some money, but he doesn't have enough to pay the entrance fee at the park, so we pay for him. He then gives me all the money that he has and won't take it back, saying that he's held on to it for too long anyway. I'm wondering what the hell I'm supposed to do with this hippie's pile of pesos, if I should buy him a drink or something. But there is no one around selling drinks. What'syourname dives in the pool, blanket and all, and that's the last we see of him.

P.S. There's a picture with the article, and it's definitely the same guy. I feel like I should send him a couple of pesos.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

The Dead Files

God bless Amazon Prime.  There are times when I wonder why I have it, but then the are times like now, when they exclusively carry the new Grateful Dead documentary, Long Strange Trip, that it all makes sense.  I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed watching this, warts and all.

The warts?  Maybe “lack of warts” might be a better description.  Not necessarily warts: there’s a lot missing.  I was waiting for a good 20-minute segment on their insane trip to play at the pyramids in Egypt in 1978 (which I read about in real time via Rolling Stone as a 70’s teenager).  Some legendary band associates are glossed over, and infamous wives of Jerry are completely missing.  Entire albums, particularly in the 70’s, aren’t even mentioned, particularly post Workingman’s Dead.  I wouldn’t mind all this, save an entire episode is dedicated solely towards their legendary fans, The Deadheads.

And that’s a complete waste of film when there’s so much other far more important ground that needs to be covered in a documentary of this size and scope.  I didn’t truly get into The Dead until well into the 90’s, after Jerry died.  I can’t recall the exact time or place, but I remember hearing “Box of Rain” in somebody’s apartment, and it struck me light a thunderbolt.  One of those album tracks that rarely got played on AOR radio in the 70’s or 80’s.  The clouds parted for me, rushed out and bought Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.  And thus I became a fan.  If you’re skeptical of The Dead’s greatness, buy only those two albums.  They aren’t all you need, but they’re the best.

Why wasn’t I a fan in the 70’s or 80’s?  Was I not exposed to their music?  Sure, I was.  I think Brother J might have even had that standard-issue greatest hits set from the time.  (Brother M, I’m certain, thought they were horseshit, although in fairness he seemed to think roughly the same of most 60’s bands and focused in on his 70’s heroes like Bowie and Rundgren.)  I constantly heard songs like “Truckin” and “Casey Jones” on the radio, to a lesser degree tracks like “Ripple” and “Uncle John’s Band.”  It was usually the same handful of tracks, over and over and over.  No other album tracks.  Ever.  No “transcendent” live tracks, ever.  (Commercial FM radio stations surely would not have played bootleg live material at the time, although they would play cool stuff like King Biscuit Flower Hour concerts.)  I liked those handful of songs.  (I love them now.)  In real time I was hearing stuff like “Shakedown Street” … which wasn’t quite doing it for me!

Back then?  In my mind, as a kid in the 70’s, there was a whole hippie stigma attached to The Grateful Dead that I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around.  I respected them, but only because I was religiously instructed to do so by the waning counter-culture powers that be (like Rolling Stone).  I thought Jerry Garcia was an affable and likable enough character, but I had no concept of just how talented a guitarist and songwriter he was.  I suspect even if you had exposed me to the good stuff, the tracks that floor me now, it wouldn’t have made sense in my 70’s adolescent mind.

It was the 1980’s that cryogenically froze The Dead for me, that whole decade and halfway through the 90s, until Jerry passed on, when that immense door quietly swung all the way open.  College should be a time of great discovery for anyone smart enough to recognize four years of relative freedom compared to the prison of high school, and the anticipation of getting by in “the real world” when it all ended.  It surely was for me; it opened me up like a flower.  Musically?  So much stuff happened, and not just with 60’s music.  Although I will say, it wasn’t until then that Bob Dylan made any sense to me, and became an overnight god.  He wasn’t alone.  (That massive Atlantic Soul series of the mid-80s affected me just as much as any white 60’s recording artists, maybe even more so as it opened me up to a whole different space and feel that rock music could possibly offer.) Bob Dylan’s classic mid-60’s period, that was a guy who wasn’t fucking around, or fucking around so cosmically that you had to stop and marvel at his ingenuity.  If he was stoned, it was in a much more enlightened, deep, human way than whatever general hippiedom appeared to offer.  That music felt real to me in a direct, immediate way.  Still does.

A huge cross section of the 1960’s opened up to me in college in the 1980’s, although I already had an overwhelming affection for the decade from being raised in the 70’s: Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Who, Hunter Thompson. Tom Wolfe, Vonnegut, and so on. 

The Dead?  Nothing.  Why?  One word: Deadheads.

I might have referenced this incident before, but I knew a girl, Elizabeth, who was a staunch English major, very clean cut, very much into poetry, very much a proper, intelligent young woman who seemed like she would have been much more at home at Princeton or Yale than Penn State, which was and is a bit of a yahoo school.  Shit, I went there one third out of family tradition, one third because it was eminently affordable (at the time, although I gather that’s changed), and one third because the football team kicked ass.  (Boy, would we get an unforeseen wakeup call further on down the road.)

We knew each other at our branch campus, and we went on knowing each other when we moved up to the much larger main campus our junior year.  I found work as an editorialist on the campus paper, and had a blast doing so.  One day I was typing up one of my columns in the basement, talking to one of the photographers on the paper.  I can’t even remember his name, but he was a very cool, slightly older guy … think Frederic Forrest in Apocalypse Now.  He didn’t look like Forrest, but he had the exact same vibe about him, slinky and cool, like a cartoon character from a Ralph Bakshi movie come to life.  I really liked that guy and respected his opinions.

Lo and behold, he said, here comes my girlfriend, and Elizabeth walks in the room.  Our minds were blown.  I knew and liked both of them, a lot, although I was surprised that she would find herself with a guy so comparatively worldly and a bit wild.  We bantered for a bit and immediately agreed to have dinner at “their place” that weekend.  Man, she was living with the dude!  This was a lot of information to take in, given that I thought she spent her nights playing chess with a bust of Alexander the Great, or something.

That Saturday rolled around, and I went to their apartment off campus for dinner.  It’s always awkward for people that age to have an adult-style dinner only with each other.  For one, we barely knew how to make real food, beyond ramen and canned goods.  I can’t remember what we had, but it had that stilted feel you get of a few people in their early 20’s acting as adult as they possibly could.  Wine flowed, another shock, I recalled her being a strict teetotaler at the branch campus.  We didn’t get hammered, just pleasantly drunk.  The conversation was nice, what we were reading, our classes, the enormous changes we were sensing in ourselves over the past six months, etc.

Dessert times rolled around.  Hey, Bill, would you like to listen to some music?  You know me, of course I would.

Elizabeth pulled out one of those medium-sized black leather cases that people would carry cassette tapes in.  Everyone had these in the 80’s as cassettes had become the medium of choice, a lot more mobile than vinyl, playable in cars, etc.  Most guys had these cases in their cars filled with their favorite albums and mixes.  She opened up that leather case …

… and every single cassette had the xeroxed symbol of a skull with a lightning bolt on it.  I knew exactly what that meant: these people were Deadheads, and all they listened to was live bootleg recordings of The Grateful Dead.  Nothing else.  Not The Allman Brothers.  Not prog.  Not metal.  Not punk.  Surely nothing recent.  Not even Dead studio albums.  Only Dead live bootlegs.

They may as well have pulled out a baby goat, slit its throat, smeared the doomed animal’s blood over their naked torsos and started howling … it had the same effect on me.  Shit.  Elizabeth.  The dude I thought was so cool from the paper.  Deadheads!  No.  Just no, man, this can’t be.  It was an exact photo negative of being side-swiped by Born Again Christians playing “cool” until they pulled The Bible out and asked if you’ve ever truly met their special friend, our lord and savior Jesus Christ.

What do you want to hear, Bill?  Well, the sound of the door slamming and my echoing footsteps running down the hall!  But in lieu of that, I always liked the song “Playing in the Band” … is there a good version of that.  Thus ensued a debate about whether the one from Cornell in ’77, or Nassau Coliseum in ’81, or Boston Gardens in ’80, or … you get the picture.  (And I’m sure your average Deadhead would correct me in a heartbeat if this song didn’t appear in any of these shows.)  The decision was made, the tape was pulled …

And I then heard what had to be the worst fucking version of “Playing in the Band” I’ve ever heard!  That was the thing about Deadheads in the 80s.  That suitcase of tapes they would always pull out.  (Which never, and I mean never, had concerts for any other band.)  They somehow managed to find the worst, shittiest dubs of those concerts that sounded like noodly hippie jibberish coming out of a boombox.  I’ve since heard many very well-recorded, clear bootlegs of numerous Dead live tracks that have floored me … but back then, it just never happened.  That might have been my first exposure to Deadheads, but surely not the last.  And it was always the same scenario.  Not your typical Deadheads, not the dreadlocked, patchouli-reeking lost souls of the 80’s, pretending to be hippies, latching on to a mostly long gone culture that was much akin to bands like Sha Na Na in the early 70’s pretending it was still 1958.

The Deadheads I met with the tape cases were always relatively clean, hip, smart college kids who were otherwise very cool, insightful people to be around.  They just had the most inexplicably narrow taste in music that I could never fathom.  Sure, I can see having a radical reaction against the artifice of the 80s, the cold synthesizers, reverbed vocals, gated drums, fake-sounding horn sections, fretless bass … that hollow 80’s sound … I could understand revolting against that by retreating into 60’s music.  But what about Dylan, or The Band, or The Stones, or The Allman Brothers, or folk music in general, or god forbid, even embracing classic country as a giant “fuck you” to the pop of the 80’s?  Had Elizabeth and the photographer pulled out a suitcase filled with Hank Williams cassettes, that would have been one hell of a night.

It never happened.  In that instance, they put on that bootleg, it was like listening to stray cats fight and fuck in an alley filled with empty trash cans.  To top it all off, Elizabeth lit up a joint, and man, the world ended, as I knew she came from a very strict background, and dating this guy from the paper was her big rebellion.  I could picture the awkward Thanksgiving dinner coming up with the new boyfriend, this hang-loose, artsy guy in his mid-20’s who had that wonderful “whatever, dude, just give me a Kerouac paperback, and I’ll sit over here on the sofa, man, while you upper-middle-class folks stare daggers at each other” countenance … she was heading for her showdown with parental authority for maybe the last time in her young adult life.

Those were your higher-end Deadheads, Deadheads pursuing college degrees, as opposed to people completely stoned out of their minds, following the band on tour from one city to another, selling whatever wares they had or made to acquire ticket and drug money.  I didn’t get it then and still don’t now.  It just seemed so constricting, to be that focused on one band to the exclusion of all others, to create a lifestyle that served as monument to that narrow sense of taste.

For me, respecting The Dead after Jerry died was understanding where alt. country was born, although it surely wasn’t known as that at the time, and wouldn’t be known as such until the late 1980’s when punk would serve as another catalyst for that whole scene to happen.  But back then?  The first two albums by The Band.  Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty by The Grateful Dead.  The first few Neil Young albums, particularly with songs like “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “Don’t Cry No Tears.”  That’s alternative country music.  It’s not rock musicians playing straight country, like The Byrds on Sweethearts of The Rodeo or Gram Parsons thereafter.  It’s not The Eagles pulling that similar sort of music in a very pop/rock direction.

It’s very raw, “country” music that touches on roots far deeper than rock music, but uses the immediacy and instrumentation of rock music to communicate those age-old truths.  The Dead had that quality in spades, as did The Band.  Neil Young was just an expert at pulling together those loose strands and presenting them as a beautiful, unified sound that no one could quite classify at the time, save to note that it was good, sometimes great.  A lot of 60’s artists paved the way for that to happen, you can even credit The Stones for helping it to happen (“Dead Flowers,” “Let It Bleed,” “Country Honk”).  Credence Clearwater Revival dabbled in this, but generally veered more rock … still, they had it, too.  It seemed like a general vibe at the time a lot of those great early 70’s rock artists could tap into, seemingly at will.

So, forgive me if I can live without the drugs, or the inane lifestyle choices, or the endless sea of bootleg concerts.  When I finally got into The Dead, it was solely based on the music, most of it thanks to Jerry, although Bob hit it out of the park every now and then, too.  Whatever faults the man had, they were easily forgiven by the music.  I have no idea what “kids today” make of the Dead.  As far as I’m concerned, kids in the 80’s were getting them all wrong, which turned me away from their music for a long time to come, much to my shame and discredit.  You couldn’t have paid me to listen to The Grateful Dead in the 80’s, as I had tons of very new and interesting indie music to digest, on top of going backwards and re-discovering the earth wasn’t flat via folks like Dylan, The Velvet Underground, Otis Redding, Chuck Berry, etc.  The main thing I eventually learned was to not judge music by the fans, otherwise I’d be listening to silence all the time.